Following a New York Times report on working conditions, the idea of boycotting Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) products because of conditions in its factories is starting to percolate and Apple is starting to respond.
Dan Lyons, best known for his "Fake Steve Jobs" character, makes clear the beef isn't just with Apple, but with all electronics makers:
Would we accept the idea of a plant where people are packed into barracks and can be roused in the middle of the night, given a biscuit, and sent to work for 12 hours? Where workers have no right to complain?
We would not accept this in the United States because, quite simply, it's barbaric.
Not "breathtaking." Barbaric.
Apple has responded in its usual way, with PR. A chart at Forbes.com insists Apple workers have it easy compared to others. Tim Worstall goes further with a full-throated defense of sweatshops that could have been written after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC questions whether this will be enough. Apple's own rigid message control is not helping, and to the charges about China should also be added growing reports of paranoia here at home, including putting engineers to work on fake projects until they prove their loyalty.
The smartest move Apple PR may have made may have been to list its suppliers. If nothing else, it broadens the front for attackers who now might go after other companies.
Investors are being told to ignore the call. Based on its most recent quarterly numbers Apple looks like a screaming buy. Maybe, if it comes under selling pressure over this, it's just a buying opportunity.
But the disquiet about Chinese working conditions won't go away. It's politically potent, and as Chris O'Brien writes at the San Jose Mercury-News. "If things don't improve, and we make excuses to turn our heads away, then the real blame for these conditions falls squarely on us."
It does feel like a new era. CEO Cook is under increasing pressure to change some of the things that made Steve Jobs' Apple great - not only in terms of working conditions but also in terms of using its cash.
This is the downside of leadership. Having achieved enormous success, Apple will be under growing pressure to show more corporate responsibility and to think different as the year goes on. The target is on its back, and wishing it away won't solve the problem.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
Additional disclosure: I could easily become one of those evil people who buy Apple on weakness.